Lightroom clarity explained

Mats Image processing, Learning Leave a Comment

Have you used clarity? If you’re a Lightroom user, i hope you have. Clarity is almost like magic – it simply makes images look better. I use it a lot.

But do you know what clarity does? Are there cases when it’s bad? Can it be overdone? How can minus clarity be used? I didn’t really know the answers to these questions, so i decided to learn. And i wrote it all down to share it with the world, so keep reading and i’ll sort this out for you.

What is clarity, really?

Technically, clarity is defined as “mid-tone contrast” or a “Local Contrast Enhancer”, LCE. What does this mean? It means it affects the contast of your image and it does so only in the mid tones. Just to keep things clear, the mid tones is what’s between the dark tones and the light tones in your image. If you look at the histogram of an image, it’s what’s right of the darks (left) and the ligths (to the right). It’s the part of the histogram marked by the red arrow.


Check out this image in three versions. Left and right are the extreme clarity values minus 100 and plus 100. The middle image is the original shot with no clarity added.


Notice how the right images pops out in a way that’s very pleasing to the eye. Clarity actually does more intelligent changes than just increase the contrast. It works around edges to make the image appear “crisper”, almost like sharpening but in larger areas than sharpening, which in most cases works on pixel level (more about sharpening here). Take a look at this test image of stripes with various luminance. Notice the way the edges are accentuated in a way that makes the stripes appear concave.

Clarity samples

A similar sample using the contrast slider shows that contrast does not work around the edges in the same way as clarity, leaving the stripes flat.

Contrast samples

Clarity usually adds a pleasant “punch” to landscapes, such as this one:

Forest clarity sample

When does clarity not work?

Generally, clarity will not work well when used for portraits. For guys, it can work for grungy type of portraits, but rarely for women and children. Notice the harsh look this portrait gets with clarity added:

Portrait with clarity

Also, clarity will in some cases add halos, or edge artifacts. An example of this is if i zoom way in on this image, where clarity has created a light halo around the tree. Use the details magnified mini-view to check for these artifacts and pull back the clarity slider if you see them happening.

Halo caused by clarity

Using negative clarity

Negative clarity (when the slider is to the left of center) can be used to create a dreamy atmosphere in some pictures. It can also be used for local adjustments to smooth out skin i portraits. In that case you would use the adjustment brush with a negative clarity value on skin areas.


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